Sunday, September 17, 2006

Kids and Modes of Consciousness

The first Wednesday of September, L -- the newly three year-old bundle of stone throwing, train driving energy that occupies most of my weekdays -- attended his first morning of pre-school.

First off, I should insert that this new enterprise seems to be a success. He loves it, his level of toilet training is far from perfect but certainly adequate, and the opportunity to have multiple 3 or 4 hour chunks of guaranteed work time while the sun is up every work week should jump start progress on my main project from glacial to merely slow.

The phenomenon of political interest here is not, however, how it has gone, but why I, faced with the pending commencement of something which could relatively easily provide me with more of something whose lack I was keenly feeling -- work time -- felt moderate but quite persistent anxiety about it in the lead-up to two Wednesdays ago.

There are some individualistic and quite uninteresting psychological factors that were probably operative: the fact of change itself, for one thing. Uncertainty over details in the six weeks preceding. The possibility that it would begin and then, for some reason, not work out. The fact that even though I have a high opinion of the institution he is attending now -- it is a Montessori pre-school -- I cannot help but see it as a first step towards institutions about which I have serious political misgivings but where he will undoubtedly end up going.

The interesting part is this: I can't shake the feeling that my anxiety at this transition -- quite a minor one, really, at least in terms of the amount of time affected by it -- has to do with the transition at the other end, when I began my role of stay-at-home parent. L was 9 months old and it happened at the same time as our move from Hamilton to Los Angeles, which meant that an already challenging shift had its impacts on me potentiated by all sorts of other tricky changes happening simultaneously.

A good way to begin pointing the way between my isolated individual experience and the political implications is the following quote from renowned feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith:

Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall have described how, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England, the domestic sphere of the middle classes became increasingly isolated from the more and more exclusively male worlds of business, politics, and science. While women remained at work in the particularlities of domesticity, men of the middle classes were active in businesses that connected them to the impersonal, extralocal dynamic of the market; they were also active in the public discourse that emerged in talk with other men in the clubs and coffee houses of Britain and Europe and in the saloons and places of public assembly in North America where the topics of journals, newspapers, and books were discussed. A radical division between the spheres of action and of consciousness of middle-class men and women emerged. The peculiar out-of-body modes of consciousness of the nascent ruling relations required a specialization of subject and agency. The formation of the middle-class male subject in education and ideology aimed at creating that extraordinary form of modern consciousness that is capable of agency in modes that displace or subdue a local bodily experience.

According to Joan Landes, women's exclusion from the emerging public discourse, associated with the Enlightenment and with the rise of capitalism as a general economic form of life, was essential to men's capacity to sustain what she calls 'the masquerade of universality.' The public sphere was defined by a gender order that excluded women. During the French Revolution and later, women's attempts to organize in public 'risked violating the constitutive principles of the bourgeois public sphere.... [They] risked disrupting the gendered organization of nature, truth, and opinion that assigned them to a place in the private, domestic but not the public realm'. Men confronting men did not raise the spectre of particularity whereas women bore particularity as their social being. Hence men associating exclusively with men could avoid recognizing 'the masquerade through which the (male) particular was able to posture behind the veil of the universal'. [references in original]

This quote really resonated. It is, perhaps, not making a terribly original point for those with some background in feminist thought. The idea of masculinity being associated in our culture with mind, with the universal, and femininity with body or emotion and with the particular is quite well established. What struck me about this quote was that it is not stuck just at the level of ideas and imagery or even merely individualistic psychology, but talks about the actual historical social basis for the production of quite different and gendered modes of subjectivity.

Not only that, but it feels true to my experience of myself. I know in my body exactly what she means by phrases like "[t]he peculiar out-of-body modes of consciousness" and "that extraodrinary form of modern consciousness that is capable of agency in modes that displace or subude a local bodily experience" and even "the masquerade of universality." Admittedly, if I were to explore my experience of it in more detail and trace its origins on an individual level there would be quirks of personality and of family-of-origin experience that push me in similar directions, but Smith's connection of it to gendered social production of subjectivities feels right as well and is undoubtedly underlying the individual factors. I can see it not only in myself but through my interactions with (most of) the people with whom I share emotional intimacy of various sorts and levels, and what they have to say about their lives and how they go about saying it. Perhaps one of the most everyday reminders of this reality is in my relationship with my primary partner and the contrast in how we engage emotionally with some of the smaller details of daily life -- I like yummy things as much as the next person, for example, but finding a new product at Trader Joe's or discovering an interesting new recipe does not seem to bring me quite the same level of delight as it does for my partner, or even really interest me in the same way. (And I shouldn't need to say this but in a culture that reflexively devalues things associated with femininity I feel the need to add that noting this capacity to appreciate the local and particular should not be taken as in any way implying any inability on the part of this highly capable scientist and academic to engage with text-mediated public forms of consciousness.) And Smith's description is certainly consistent with my observations of gender dynamics in activist spaces, particularly the tendency of (white) activist boys (me included, though I think quite a bit less now than I used to) to blow hot air about things they have read and seen but to expend what sometimes seems like extraordinary amounts of energy to keep their/our own personal experiences not only out of conversation but completely outside of their/our own politicized awareness.

The quote also relates very directly to my experience of becoming a stay-at-home parent. Among other things, that represented the forcible transition from a life which allowed me to indulge in those "peculiar out-of-body modes of consciousness" precisely whenever I pleased to one in which I could no longer "displace or subdue [my] local bodily experience" whenever it was convenient.

Generally speaking, I spend a lot of my time living in my head and a lot of the time that I spend there involves engaging in dialogue with texts: I read things and I think about them and I write things. I have perfected the art of reading while walking down the street and even when you see me without a book, often I am writing something in my head. Or doing some kind of reflection that is a sort of post-text consumption processing and/or preamble to writing. Of course I don't want to exagerate my disconnection from the particulars of everyday life in how I'm describing this -- though this particular vocabulary to describe the process is at least partly new to me, deliberate engagement with the particular and the embodied has become an increasingly clear personal and political priority for me over the last decade. But even so, going from a fair amount of discretion about where and when and how that process moved forward to suddenly spending ten to twelve hours a day, five days a week, as the person solely responsible for the health, wellbeing, and entertainment of a baby and then a toddler meant being forcibly submerged in the local, the particular, the embodied. Being with a baby or a toddler or a pre-schooler for extended periods of time mandates such a subjectivity. Full stop. I've become more skilled than I was initially at finding ways and opportunities for sneaking bits of text as if they were a sip from the bottle hidden in the bureau drawer, but no amount of artful dodging can get away from the fact that doing even a halfway decent job of being what you have to be for a little one requires a different mode of subjetivity than middle-class men are taught to experience as natural (and as their inalienable right).

The transition was a bit of a shock. Mind you, it was a shock that was good for me, but it was still a shock. And I should add that I'm not trying to romanticize the experience of being a stay-at-home parent -- regardless of the gender socialization from which you are starting, its moments of delight and deep satisfaction also inevitably come packaged with boredom, frustration, exhaustion, and isolation. There are still times when I seek retreat into text, like bringing a book with me when we are going, yet again, to throw stones in the nearby creek. But I think the transition did force a process which has perhaps subtley but definitely significantly (though certainly not decisively or finally) shifted my engagement with consciousness that is local, particular, embodied. When since my own childhood would I have spent twenty minutes crouched in front of a post crawling with caterpillars, just watching?

The points of particular relevance to where I started this post can be found in that transition. How I navigated it is, inevitably, particular to me; I'm sure other boys would do it quite differently. But for me, it was important to frame the shift -- and remember, at the time I really could not articulate it as I have in this post, I just knew I had to get used to something being different -- as being a political and even a moral imperative. I can picture feminist women that I know rolling their eyes at that and asking why I couldn't just go ahead and do it, and I also recognize that this involved the rather strange approach of taking things that for me had a great deal of their origin in those "peculiar out-of-body modes of consciousness" and using them to facilitate my engagement with a quite different mode of consciousness. But don't knock it, it (more or less) worked.

The thing is, this involved me attaching a particular kind of value to my parenting work -- value that it deserves, certainly, but also value of a sort that means that the prospect of deliberately laying down some small part of that responsibility, particularly for what felt like selfish reasons like getting more work time, felt like a bit of a betrayal of the political and moral imperative that helped me take up the responsibility to begin with. Which made me anxious.

Yeah. Boys are dumb. I know this.

In any case, I raise this because it seems like a useful way to talk about the issue of gendered modes of consciousness, particularly in relation to how they have been socially produced. Understanding this particular reality, and understanding in the body and not just in a cerebral way, could be important for anyone engaged in the ongoing process of wrestling with their gender socialization. And on a personal level, once he actually started attending pre-school, the anxiety went away. Over the longer term, as L gradually needs less and less intensive parental supervision, I think the struggle will be to avoid losing whatever lessons I have learned from the shocking transition of consciousness even as I embrace with enthusiasm and energy whatever new realities life brings.


rabfish said...

great, self-reflective post.

being forced to be embodied, particular, local: like a shock of cold water, like torture, but beautiful.

are there other parts of your daily practice that put you in that space?

rabfish said...

p.s boys ain't necessarily dumb :)

Scott Neigh said...

Wellllll, not necessarily... :)

Other parts of daily practice that put me in that space? Well, it of the features of the shock of cold water was that it actually helped me realize that these different modes of consciousness existed and made me more at home in some of those modes that previously felt unfamiliar to me. There are lots of mundane, everyday kinds of tasks which can be performed in embodied, local consciousness, or they can be equally well performed with one's head off thinking about one's next blog post, or of the outcomes of the transition that came with stay-at-home parenting was a greater capacity to be comfortable in the former space. So in that class of acitvites which can function quite well with either, I now am sometimes in one and sometimes in the other rather than reflexively avoiding the embodied, or reflexively avoiding those activities.

Plus there are a few other kinds of activities that more assertively push consciousness towards embodiedness, like strenuous exercise or sexual activity. Not necessarily things that occupy a particularly large proportion of life, however...

And, perhaps in what appears to be a paradoxical fashion, stream-of-consciousness writing practice can also lead to an embodied kind of consciousness. It doesn't necessarily -- some days it takes me farther into disconnection -- but because it is a very materially different sort of way of engaging with text, it can and does sometimes lead to more embodied consciousness.

And certainly getting away from in front of the computer screen can be important for getting into that kind of space, as I seem to remember you discussing in a post or two in the past...

Anonymous said...

Scott, what do you think of the Unabomber's Manifesto?

Scott Neigh said...

Hi Anonymous! Haven't actually read it, I'm think I might find it of interest, based on what I've written in this post?

Anonymous said...

Scott, Anonymous here. I stop by everyday to see if you've posted anything new. I would be very interested in your thoughts on "Industrial Society and its Discontents", since I believe you're concerned about many of the same problems as Kaczynski, but take a completely different (i.e. not off-the-deep-end radical) approach to their potential resolution. Nevertheless, crazy as many claim Kaczynski is, I'm curious as to your response to the problems and solutions he proposes. Here's a link for convenience:

Scott Neigh said...

Hi again Anonymous...thanks for the link! Tell you what, give me a few days to read it, and I'll either post my thoughts here as a comment or, if I have enough to say to make it worth my while, I'll maybe do a post about it.

Scott Neigh said...

Hi Anonymous...I've had a bit of a look through the manifesto. It's an interesting document, and bits of it seemed familiar to me -- I must have read at least part of it before and not remembered. Certainly he seems to be someone who has thought deeply about the world, and is deeply wounded by how messed up it is.

There are a few pretty important things about his analysis that I disagree with strongly, however. The most general point is his emphasis on technology, in making _things_ out to be a motor of history rather than people. He mistakes tools of the ruling relations for their cause, and assumes a particular overall form of social organization (with its related drives and imperatives) as a given with technology as the only important variable. It is an analysis that comes from an extremely alienated place, I think, in more than one sense.

Plus, while there was the odd point in his early section on "the psychology of leftism" that showed some insight, a lot of that section was shallow, idiotic, and/or oppressive. It seemed to be more of a rhetorical device deployed to pre-empt the inevitable disagreements those on the left would have with the manifesto, rather than any serious attempt to understand movements for social change and the people who compose them.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous here; thanks for sharing your thoughts, Scott. I think it's great fun to be able to interact in this way.

A follow-up question: given that technological advancement appears to be practically unstoppable, what would be your prognosis of the likely effects of this advancement of technology on the sorts of issues you're concerned with? Can we learn anything from the coterminous trajectory of activism with advancements in technology since the advent of the industrial revolution? Is there any sort of causal nexus or interaction between technological advances and the effectiveness of activism against oppressive practices (whether they're consciously practiced or not)? In other words, I'm raising the question whether technology is likely to be more useful as a tool for fighting oppression or promoting oppression (and by oppression I would include any social practices that result in oppression, whether it is an intentional result or simply a by-product of intentionally benign conduct).

Scott Neigh said...

Wow...those follow-up questions deserve a book or two, not a few off-the-cuff sentences in a blog's comment section! (By coincidence, I just started reading a book on related themes...hopefully I'll have it read and reviewed next week some time.)

So here's a few thoughts off the top of my head:

First off, in terms of involuntary participation in oppressive social relations, obviously today's social relations take advantage of technology as a tool in such a way as to make it almost impossible to avoid. We're all connected, and capitalism is increasingly colonizing every physical space, every social space, even more and more biological spaces. You can't live in an industrial society without being implicated in that. So the kinds of social relations that currently exist and depend on technology make it harder (probably impossible) just to opt out.

Second, a non-answer that may seem like a cop-out, but that I think is the truth: I think all of this is very contested, and does not follow some sort of simplistic, linear relationship. Some technological advancements, particularly in terms of production processes, are very deliberately intended to replace labour from workers who sometimes get stroppy with _things_, i.e. labour previously transformed into inanimate objects that, because they are inanimate, can be counted on to obey. This can disrupt opportunities for potential labour militancy. On the other hand, that just means resistance shifts its form and/or focus. And lots of other technological advancements have come to be simply because it is profitable to produce them, and their ability to be used in struggle is unpredictable. So I don't think there is any one simple answer. The NSA may be able to monitor activist communications in ways that have J. Edgar Hoover salivating in his grave, sure, but the combination of traditional indigenous values and practices with savy use of technology give the Zapatistas ways to go about their business that no indigenous movement or guerilla movement of the '60s had.

Three, in terms of the most extreme kinds of violent struggle, such as civil war against a violent and oppressive state, technology and how it is currently controlled stacks the odds to a huge degree in favour of the states (particularly for the richest, most powerful states). You can't just take over the arms factories, hope a few regiments of the army desert, and march through the countryside collecting angry peasants as you go, and march on the capital. (Or, to go much farther back, gather a bunch of other disaffected peasants, march on London, hang some nobles, get tricked by the king and get hanged yourself.) Frankly, I'm not sure that all of this is much of a loss, but it deserves to be noted as a change.

Fourth, obviously one place where technology has allowed for substantial changes in social relations is around knowledge production and circulation (i.e. the media). I have the feeling that this is currently net negative for movements against oppression in North America, at least, but I don't think that's inevitable. Like everything else, it is subject to struggle and the impacts of other changes in society.

Okay...that's a few semi-random thoughts...does that answer your questions at all? And what are your answers to the questions you posed?